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The Commemoration of Benefactors 2018

The Very Revd Simon Cowling, Dean of Wakefield

Reading: Ecclesiasticus 44. 1-15

Even the most cursory survey of the last half-century of English Reformation historiography will reveal scholarly terrain that is deeply contested. The predominant, and for a long time apparently impregnable, Whig protestant narrative began to come under challenge two generations ago by a revisionist school of historians. These revisionists have had to fight their own corner in recent years against the post-revisionist turn in English Reformation studies. The arguments and counter arguments, both within and beyond the academy, have sometimes been framed in ways which mirror the bitterness of the very theological disputes that shaped the Reformation itself. Christopher Haigh, firmly of the revisionist school, has described how a woman once complained to his then vice chancellor about allowing a Roman Catholic to lecture on the Reformation. The vice chancellor defended his colleague by asking the woman why a Roman Catholic shouldn't lecture on the Reformation – only afterwards adding that in any case Haigh was not a Roman Catholic.  

As one who has taken the occasional stroll across this contested terrain during my ordained ministry I have always found myself drawn less to the competing theological and historical grand narratives of the sixteenth century than to the more richly textured local narratives; stories that reveal the myriad ways in which people’s lives, and especially their spiritual sensibilities, were affected by  the Reformation tides that ebbed and flowed beyond their control. So for example the protestant reformers’ belief that prayer for the dead was unscriptural, and led people away from truth into error, gave rise to the wholesale destruction, locally, of the bede-rolls. These prayer lists of the departed in each parish named those who had contributed financially in any way, however modest or transitory, to the fabric and ornaments - the ‘work’ as it was called - of the local church. But these bede-rolls were more than mere lists. They were an almost tangible link with those who had once lived and breathed and prayed in local churches, in villages and in towns where their descendants now lived and breathed and prayed. Most importantly, an individual’s inclusion on the bede roll meant that they would be prayed for by name on a regular basis, especially though not only on All Souls’ Day. The bede-rolls were therefore of huge social as well as spiritual significance. Eamon Duffy has described them as social map(s) of the community, often stretching over centuries, and promising a continuing place in the consciousness of the parish in which (the departed) had once lived. The bede-rolls offered a means of spiritual communion between the past and the present, and it was this as much as their connection with prayer for the dead that made them objects of the reformers’ suspicion. Their destruction was part of a deliberate policy to ensure that the past would become a foreign country, inaccessible and excised from memory. The dead, along with the religious world view they had embodied, were now beyond reach. The old things had passed away and all was made new.

Yet the arc of history resolutely refuses to follow the precise trajectory of a grand theological – or indeed any other - narrative. As the commemorative events of last weekend amply demonstrate there is a deep human need to connect ourselves with the past, and in particular to express gratitude for the legacies – moral or material, intellectual or self-sacrificial – that our predecessors have bequeathed. So it was that even after the final triumph of the Reformation in England the bede-rolls had a continuing life. The Reformers cut with the psychological grain. Prayer for the dead might have become theologically unacceptable, but thanksgiving for their generosity and moral qualities was both permitted and actively encouraged as a spur to the living to exercise similar generosity and to display similar moral qualities. In tonight’s act of worship we have been privileged once again to listen to the Appointed Commemoration of Founders and Benefactors. This stands as a latter day bede roll for this academic community which takes its very name from two of our greatest benefactors. It seems to me precisely to be a living example of what I referred to earlier as a ‘richly textured local narrative’. To borrow Duffy’s phrase, the Appointed Commemoration is akin to a social map of this College community; a reminder of the bonds of affection and obligation that continue to link past and present members and benefactors; proof that, in Caius at least, the past is not a foreign country excised from memory. Our gratitude – and (for what it’s worth) I believe our prayers - for all those whose generosity has contributed to the physical and intellectual building up of this community transcends time - and of course takes no account of their religious beliefs. It is enough to know, and to be thankful, for what these women and men have left and for what they continue to make possible. Much has been and continues to be made new in this College, but the old has not entirely passed away. Our Caian past is no foreign country.

In the final verses of the reading from Ecclesiasticus that we hear at each Commemoration of Benefactors, Jesus ben Sirach anticipates the closing section of his book. These … merciful men whose righteousness hath not been forgotten will be listed by ben Sirach in the chapters that follow – Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and many more. We have not heard any of those names in our reading. Instead, the Appointed Commemoration, with its own list of men and women whose righteousness has not been forgotten in this community might be thought of as a bespoke and entirely fitting Caian, though tertiocanonical, closing to the Book of Ecclesiasticus.

I end by reflecting on another verse from our reading: some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been. It is a criticism sometimes levelled at the pre-Reformation bede-rolls that they excluded those who were too poor to make any contribution to the work of their local church. As we rightly and duly give thanks this evening for the generosity of our benefactors, we give thanks also for all those who are not named in that list but who have enriched the life of this college through their diligent scholarship, their service of others, or in other ways. May we tell of their wisdom too, and shew forth their praise to the glory of God – to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, dominion and praise now and to the ages of ages. Amen.